Reloading for dangerous game – a different proposition
The do’s and don’ts when loading ammunition for dangerous game hunting
Imay as well admit it: hunting dangerous game is one of the most exciting pastimes any hunter can indulge in. Few things in life compare to the feeling that goes through one’s bones when the big tracks crossing the road are first sighted and the bolt is closed on a big cartridge after a nod from your professional hunter. As you shoulder your rifle and follow the meandering tracks into the mopane thicket you suddenly become aware of a slight metallic aftertaste in your mouth – the rifle that felt so heavy and comforting on the shooting range back home suddenly feels completely inadequate. Hunting dangerous game makes one happy to be alive.
However, prior to getting off the Land Cruiser and carrying a big rifle over your shoulder, a number of things have to happen first to ensure that your longanticipated dream hunt will be a success. Animals such as buffalo or elephant are fully capable of injuring or killing a careless hunter, so his choice of equipment becomes very important.
Today’s hunter is blessed with a far wider choice of ammunition and premium-quality bullets than ever before. Highquality factory-loaded ammunition, suitable for thick-skinned dangerous game is available from various manufacturers such as Federal, Norma and others and is generally loaded with bullets that yesteryear’s hunters such as JA Hunter and Jim Sutherland never even dreamt about. In addition, today’s factory-loaded ammunition is generally very reliable, accurate and is designed to deliver optimum terminal performance.
For South Africans, however, the fly in the ointment is that factory-loaded ammunition for the big-bores are not always freely available and the ammunition is almost always prohibitively expensive. Unfortunately, due to the rand’s fluctuating exchange rate and other factors such as excessive difficulties in importing the stuff in the first place, this situation is not likely to change anytime soon, so reloading is therefore the most viable option for locals.
When preparing for a dangerous game hunt I always opt for the best components available to ensure success. One of the prerequisites of a bullet for dangerous game is the ability to penetrate deeply and in a straight line. For elephant, only solid, non-expanding bullets should be used. Fortunately a good number of such bullets are available – the Woodleigh FMJ (designed along the same lines as the vintage Kynoch solids but with the addition of a thick steel jacket to avoid deformation), Barnes Super Solid, North Fork, as well as the South African-designed and manufactured Dzombo, to name a few. All of these, as well as a number of
bullets by other manufacturers will do a fine job and they are all available in component form.
Today’s hunter is even more spoilt for choice when it comes to expanding bullets that are suitable for buffalo. A few decades ago solid bullets were regarded as the only really viable choice for thick-skinned dangerous game and hunters were routinely advised to load with solids only, in spite of the potential risk of over-penetration. On broadside shots, many of today’s expanding bullets work to perfection on buffalo. They will penetrate deep enough (through both shoulders) and hold together. Correct bullet choice even turns the relatively mild 9.3x62 into a very good buffalo calibre.
In terms of premium-quality expanding bullets there are a myriad of good candidates. The internet and printed media also provide authoritative sources for research, making it easy to choose the right bullet and equipment. Select a bullet that is accurate out of your rifle, will penetrate in a straight line, hold together and retain as much weight as possible after expansion. Then put in enough range time – the most important as- pect of dangerous game hunting is to shoot straight when the moment of truth arrives.
A relatively new bullet design is the so-called Cup-Nose solid, introduced by the US bullet maker North Fork. The CupNose is essentially a mono-metal solid with a short nose section that expands to roughly just over calibre diameter. I haven’t used them myself but a friend gave me a few in .416 calibre and I do admit of being curious about them. My friend has used them in various calibres on both elephant and buffalo and he claims they deliver tremendous straightline penetration coupled with lethal terminal performance.
Another fairly recent development is the Woodleigh hydrostatically stabilised bullet, designed by Australian metallurgist John Marozzi and marketed by Woodleigh. It is a weird-looking bullet with a cupshaped hollow at the front end (see picture). A thorough explanation of exactly how the “hydro” bullet works would require a separate article, but suffice to say that they penetrate like crazy, leave a wound channel that is considerably wider than that of a conventional full-metal jacket solid and are safe to use in »
» older rifles with barrels made from softer steel. I have shot a number of animals with this bullet, including a water buffalo bull with a vintage .500/450 NE double in Australia’s Northern Territories in 2014, and I have yet to recover a bullet.
When doing load development for solid bullets I’m generally a little conservative. Since solids are as a rule slightly longer in length than their soft-nose, expanding counterparts, you need to seat them deeper into the case (hence they take up more of the case’s internal space) to make the loaded cartridge fit into the magazine. I therefore make an effort finding cases with slightly thinner case walls to avoid sacrificing powder capacity. Due to their construction, solids generally tend to produce higher chamber pressures, so it is prudent to start off by using starting loads when developing loads. Work up slowly and carefully while keeping an eye open for signs of pressure.
In the .375 H&H, I have used 75gr S365 propellant behind 300gr soft-nose bullets for the past ten years (and yes, I know it is not in the Somchem reloading manual but S365 is actually a fine choice for the .375 H&H and 300gr bullets). When loaded in Winchester, Remington or Norma cases that I use, this load produces just over 2 500fps at the muzzle with no signs of excessive pressure and the powder almost fills the case which is what you want. When loading solids, however, I drop the load by two grains (2gr) to compensate for the Woodleigh’s longer length and hard steel jacket. Even with the slightly reduced load, muzzle velocity is about the same and both the solid as well as my preferred expanding bullet of choice, the 300gr Swift A-Frame, shoot to virtually the same point of impact at 100 metres. The combination has served me very well in the field on a number of occasions.
When preparing cases I prefer to full-length size all the ammunition I intend taking along on the hunt. The reason for this is simple: ammunition loaded with full-length-sized cases chamber easy and slick and is one less potential problem to worry about during the hunt. Yes, full-length sizing lessens case life, but buying a new batch of brass every now and then seems like cheap insurance against disaster. I also try to avoid using cases for dangerous game hunts that have been sized more than once to avoid potential case-head separations.
Opinion seems to be divided on the subject of crimping the cases. I have never encountered problems with bullets being pushed into cases as a result of the hammering they received from recoil whilst loaded in the magazine. However, others have and I certainly have no argument with anyone preferring to apply a firm crimp to the case mouths of loaded ammunition. In fact, I do so routinely myself in any event, just to be on the safe side. I own Lee factory-crimp dies for a number of calibres for just this purpose – they are affordable and work as advertised.
WATCH THE PRESSURE
One of my favourite pastimes is observing fellow competitors when taking part in big-bore shooting competitions. It is sometimes amusing to watch the antics of some shooters as they attempt to load badlytuned rifles under pressure or extract stuck cases from chambers. Sorting out a badly feeding rifle is all in a day’s work for a competent gunsmith but there is simply no excuse for ammunition loaded to excessive pressure levels. Trying to deal with stuck cases when a buffalo or elephant charges, is not recommended. My advice is to load your ammo with easy extraction primarily in mind. Dangerous game hunting in Africa often takes place in very hot climates and ammunition loaded to maximum pressure levels is therefore just another potential liability.
Also, a big part of the fun inherent to the pursuit of dangerous game is getting as close as possible before pulling the trigger. There is thus no need trying to turn your .375 or .458 into a flat-shooter instead of a closerange, fight-stopper. Do the right thing and keep chamber pressures well within reason to ensure proper functioning.
While the majority of us use bolt-action rifles, a fair number of hunters rely on doubles. Although reloading for double rifles and vintage ones especially, can sometimes be a black art that requires a combination of wisdom, patience and luck, the rules regarding handloading are essentially the same as when loading for a bolt-action or single-shot rifle – with one or two notable exceptions. Firstly, a double’s action lacks the boltaction’s camming power and the single-shot falling-block’s brute strength. Doubles rely to a very large extent on ammunition loaded to modest pressure levels for primary extraction and regulation and a double rifle, generally speaking, does not respond well to different types of ammunition or bullets of different weight. It is therefore essential for the handloader to duplicate the muzzle velocity and pressure level of the ammunition that the double rifle in question was regulated with (“regulation” in this context refers to the process whereby the two barrels were fitted together by the manufacturer to produce acceptable accuracy at a given distance).
To add to the mix, most vintage doubles were regulated during times gone by with British-made Kynoch ammunition that was loaded with cordite, a very bulky propellant that is no longer available. In the roomy cases of most of the Nitro-Express cartridges it can sometimes be difficult to replicate the cartridge’s original ballistics with modern propellants and the use of filler material (wads of foam or Dacron) to take up empty space, is often called for.
In the case of a double rifle of modern manufacture, it will most likely have been regulated at the factory with ammunition by Hornady, Federal or one of the other manufacturers turning out ammunition for the big doubles. The use of modern propellants greatly eases any potential reloading pains and it was relatively easy for me to find accurate loads for the modern double rifles I have worked with so far.
After the ammunition has been assembled, I do a few final checks to ensure that no hiccups will occur. The first is a thorough visual inspection of every individual cartridge for any cracks, dents or burrs. Obviously, any defect automatically relegates that particular cartridge to the shooting range where a misfeed or jam is a mere inconvenience and not a potential disaster. Secondly, I cycle each and every cartridge I intend to take along through my rifle to ensure that they all feed and chamber perfectly (with a double, dropping the cartridges into the chambers and closing the action will suffice). This is a potentially dangerous practise so the safety catch between your ears must be firmly in the “on” position before you start cycling the cartridges.
From personal experience I can attest that a .300 Magnum makes a tremendous amount of noise when fired in a small room, and that a bullet makes a fairly large hole in a concrete floor. Therefore, perform this simple yet vital test where it is safe to do so, such as on the shooting range with the rifle pointed in a safe direction.
With a bit of proper planning and preparation, loading your own ammunition for your dangerous game hunt is not only a very rewarding and satisfying experience but adds spice to the hunt itself. I can highly recommend it!
Another illustration of why good bullets, capable of excellent penetration, are an absolute necessity for dangerous game. Here, Zimbabwean professional hunter Barry Style is supervising the skinning and slaughtering of a buffalo. Note the animal’s...
This photo amply illustrates why proper function AND good ammunition are two of the prime ingredients of a dangerousgame rifle. This Zimbabwean buffalo bull was unimpressed with a perfect broadside heart/lung shot from a .375 H&H (300gr Swift A-Frame)...
Two expanded North Fork CupNose solids. Both were recovered from buffalo. On the left is a 400gr .416 fired from a .416 Rigby and on the right a 500gr .458 fired from a .450 NE. The Cup-Nose is typical of the latest generation of bullets meant for...
A selection of some of the dangerous game bullets available to handloaders: (L to R) 400gr .416 North Fork Cup-Nose; 300gr .375 Woodleigh FMJ; 300gr .375 Swift A-Frame; 300gr Woodleigh Heavy Duty soft-nose and lastly a 300gr Woodleigh Hydro. The...
A 400gr, .416 North Fork Cup-Nose bullet (left) flanked by a 300gr .375 Woodleigh Hydro solid. Note the Woodleigh’s plastic nose cup (removed) to aid feeding in magazine rifles.